SIKESTON - Since gas prices have hit the $2-per-gallon mark, many motorists are cutting down the amount they spend on fuel by simply driving off and not paying for their fuel.
"Once they go above $2 is when we start to see and notice a difference," said Scott Jenkins, co-owner of Fas Gas in Sikeston. At that point, the increase of gas prices and increase of drive-offs go hand in hand.
"That's generally the case," agreed Mike Right, vice-president of public affairs at AAA of Missouri. Average gas prices in Missouri as of Monday were $2.23 per gallon. "And it's definitely rising," Right added.
But these drive-offs put these motorists on the lookout for arrest and possibly prosecution, in addition to driving up the rising cost of gas even higher, as gas stations pass on the cost of the stolen gas to paying customers.
"I would say it's less than a cent (that we have to add in because of drive-
offs), but it could obviously change with the more drive-offs we have," Jenkins said. The value of stolen gas is quite variable, he added. "Some days it's $100 and other days its $0."
According to a 2001 state law, motorists can lose their license as a result of gas theft. If convicted, there is a mandatory 60-day suspension for the first offense, 90-day suspension for the second offense, and 180-day suspension for each future offense, in addition to potential jail time or fines.
However, these guidelines are rarely invoked. "To my knowledge, so far only 44 have been prosecuted by the attorney general (this year)," Jenkins said. Fas Gas has never had a gas thief prosecuted, but they have been arrested, he added.
One of the problems with prosecuting individuals for stealing gas is proving the individual intended to steal it. "You have to remember the definition of steal - it is the intent to deprive," said Capt. Mark Crocker of the Sikeston Department of Public Safety. "In most cases, people forget to pay and drive off, or they paid with a credit card that didn't go through."
About 75 percent of the time, DPS officials track down the alleged thieves, who then go back and pay. Since the theft is accidental, it isn't a crime, Crocker said. Jenkins said their stores have had several customers return to pay, usually within about 48 hours.
And to Crocker's knowledge, Sikeston DPS has never filled out the paperwork for someone to be prosecuted for stealing fuel. "Can you prove that they really intended to take the gas?" he questioned, adding that most store owners aren't too worried about prosecuting, as long as they are paid for the gas.
No figures were available concerning how much gas theft has actually risen. But the numbers reported to DPS haven't increased too much. "I haven't seen the calls rise tremendously," Crocker admitted, "It's not as much as I expected."
But with prices still on the rise, more people may try to steal gas, so stores are taking extra precautions.
According to Jenkins, prevention is key to fight drive-offs. At Fas Gas, there are one or two people who are devoted to monitoring gas pumps, constantly watching the videos of surveillance cameras that were recently installed.
"If they see someone driving off, they try to get the license plate (from the video) and run outside, trying to get a description of the car," Jenkins said. Then, store employees will call DPS, in hopes they will catch the thieves.
Another trend in the industry to prevent drive-offs is requiring customers to pay before they pump. Now, credit and debit card users have the option of paying at the pump to avoid going in the store, but this policy would spread to consumers paying with cash or checks. "It hasn't trickled down here yet," Jenkins said. "But I see it coming eventually."